Monday, February 22, 2021


THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (HarperCollins, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Toby's life was perfectly normal... until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They're looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it's time to take them to the sanatorium. No one returns from the sanatorium.

Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.

Because everybody dies. It's how you choose to live that counts..

Over the weekend, the Netflix adaptation of Sarah Pinborough's excellent novel BEHIND HER EYES trended on Twitter and hit #1 on both sides of the Atlantic. It reminded me a bit of the buzz when the book itself came out a few years ago, the #WTFthatending type of chatter on social media. 

For some crime fans, the Netflix adaptation is a chance to see a screen version of a story they loved in its bestselling book form. For others, it may be a first experience of Pinborough's creativity, quality storytelling, and warped mind. The good news is there's plenty more to sample; while BEHIND HER EYES was a breakthrough book, it's only one of more than twenty books on Pinborough's backlist - which ranges across YA, sci-fi/fantasy, fairy tale retellings, TV tie-ins, and various thrillers. 

Another book of Pinborough's that I really loved, but didn't review in longer form at the time (though I did include it in a roundup of my favourite new-to-me authors of 2015), was THE DEATH HOUSE. 

This is a beautifully written novel that dances across genre 'boundaries', mixing all sorts of elements into a really wonderful, suspenseful read that tickles the mind and tugs at the heart. It's set in a dystopian future where certain youngsters are segregated away in an isolated 'school', awaiting their fate after a blood test has marked them as having a 'defective' gene. A terminal diagnosis. Marking time until they too will get sick and be sent to the sanatorium, from where no kid has ever returned. 

There's a resonant sense of humanity in Pinborough's tale, which sort of mixes the British boarding school tales of decades past (lessons and chores, friendships and coming-of-age concerns) with something darker and creepier - though not utterly bleak. It's a story about life, love, and death. 

There's plenty of psychological suspense going on, among other elements. Readers - like the characters themselves - are left with plenty of questions and fewer answers about the genetic ailment that is seen as so dangerous and deadly that children are torn from their families and sent far, far away to an isolated British island to be watched, taught (for what, if they have no future?), and then to die. 

There's a sort of mesmerising quality to THE DEATH HOUSE, and Pinborough crafts an evocative sense of place - even if there are so many things we don't know. The adolescent characters are superbly drawn - from leads Toby and Clara to plenty of secondary characters - and what they go through packs a real emotional wallop. Pinborough makes us care, then takes a tenderizer to our hearts. 

Overall THE DEATH HOUSE is a superb novel from a talented storyteller. Readers who need everything spelled out or made clear may struggle with the open-endedness of many aspects, and the questions unanswered. But in the end this is a story about people more than plotlines. When I picked up THE DEATH HOUSE I'd been meaning to give Sarah Pinborough a go for a while, having heard good things. I was not disappointed; she added herself to my 'must-read' list. 

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. His first non-fiction book, SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME, was published in 2020. You can heckle him on Twitter.

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